Monday, April 25, 2011

Today = Tradition

I’m able to trace my mother’s side of the family back to the Middle Ages in Switzerland, hence (love using that word whenever I can), I’m totally appreciative of tradition. As you know, that is especially true for art. For one thing, I don’t think art can be created in a vacuum: every work of art builds on something from before. What I find really charming is where the tradition of an art form is a conscious aspect of contemporary work. Nowhere is that more apparent than in ceramic arts in Japan.

The history of Japanese ceramic art is a long record of development that began in the Neolithic period (ca. 3500–1000 bce). I have shown you an example of the oldest ceramic tradition known on Earth, a pot from the Jomon culture (ca. 3000–200 bce). Jomon pots, with their incised and applied coil decoration, are the first instance of ceramics being decorated purely for aesthetic rather than utilitarian purposes. The combination of utility and beauty has been a constant feature of Japanese ceramics to the present day. The artist featured this week, Shōzō Michikawa, states that no matter what kind of decoration he concentrates on, he always makes his pieces functional, since ceramics have been a part of daily life since forever.

Shōzō was born in Toya, Hokkaido and studied at Aoyama Gakuin University in Tokyo. Initially he worked as a businessman in the 1970s. He discovered an affinity for ceramics after taking evening classes, and in the late 1970s he gave up the business world to become a full-time ceramic artist. Although the folds, wrinkles, and faceting of his works would seem to be sculpted, Shōzō works his pieces up on the wheel. His unique, unconventional forms, although modern in aesthetic, definitely relate back to forms in nature. This bowl, for example, almost looks to me as if it is a cabbage head opening up.

Shōzō established his studio in Seto, Aichi. Seto has a 1300 year tradition of ceramic art. In the Kamakura period (1185–1333), the first glazed stoneware was produced there. It is known as one of the Six Old Kilns, and is the oldest ceramic center in Japan. Historically, Seto stoneware is coarse clay, usually decorated with carved or incised designs. Shōzō’s work admirably highlights the particular nature of the regional clay. The kohiki glaze, white slip (clay mixed with water) with a translucent glaze, was introduced by Korean potters centuries ago.

Check out other examples of contemporary Japanese ceramics in the Davis collection.

Learn more about Shōzō Michikawa and his work on his website.

Correlations to Davis programs: Explorations in Art Grade 2: 3.17–18 studio; Explorations in Art Grade 3: 6.35; Explorations in Art Grade 4: 4.23–24 studio; A Global Pursuit: 7.3; A Personal Journey: 3.3; The Visual Experience: 10.6, 13.5; Discovering Art History: 4.4

Monday, April 18, 2011

One Day in 1839

Always the geek interested in little discussed aspects of the history of art, I bring you the art of a true pioneer! It took three centuries for some archeologists/art historians to become interested in the ruins of the ancient Mayan cultures of the Yucatan and Central America. Many Mayan cities were abandoned in the 14th and 15th centuries and most scholars are still not quite sure why. With the Spanish invasion and conquest in the 16th century and the suppression of native cultures, many Mayan cities became overgrown and forgotten. Ironically, it was western Europeans and Americans who led the charge to rediscover and excavate the glories of Mexico’s past.

Frederick Catherwood studied architecture in London from 1815 to 1820. In 1821 he went to Rome and was important in documenting the excavation of ancient sites. During the following years his numerous travels took him to Sicily, Greece, Egypt, and Palestine. He worked as an architect in New York from 1836 to 1839.

During the years 1839–1840 and 1841–1842 he joined the expeditions of lawyer and amateur archeologist John Lloyd Stephens (1805–1852). In 1839 President Martin van Buren commissioned Stephens as ambassador to Central America. Stephens subsequently – with Catherwood documenting – rediscovered the cities of the Mayan culture throughout Central America, starting in Copán, Honduras. From there he and Catherwood explored and rediscovered Chichén Itzá, Uxmal, Palenque, and 40 other Mayan sites.

Catherwood’s detailed illustrations of monuments in each site, along with Stephen’s publications, spurred the excavation of numerous Mayan sites that had been ignored for centuries. Catherwood’s drawings were translated into lithographs for “Views of Ancient Monuments in Central America, Chiapas, and Yucatan,” a portfolio of 26 lithographs that Catherwood himself chose and hand-colored. This view of the Governor’s Palace from Uxmal is one that became a lithograph in that portfolio. Compare it to the excavated building as it looks today!

Correlations to Davis programs: Explorations in Art Grade 1: 1.1, Explorations in Art Grade 2: 6.31, Explorations in Art Grade 3: 4.21, Explorations in Art Grade 4: 3.18, Explorations in Art Grade 5: 2.12, A Personal Journey 8.1, A Community Connection: 4.2, A Global Pursuit: 9.2.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Spring on Tile

Ever since I fell in like with American “art pottery” years ago – with the wonderful tile work that those companies produced at the turn of the twentieth century – I’ve been a big fan of tile work all over the world. I’ve mentioned in previous posts that if I wasn’t a painter I would love to be a ceramic artist, especially with the painted-on-design part. However, what I can do is sit back and admire the work of ceramic artists through the centuries. Some of the most gorgeous tile work ever has come out of the Middle East. Need I mention the buildings in Isfahan, Iran, covered in gorgeous tile work? I came across this tile lunette while working on a Discovery Series set on Safavid art.

In the centuries before book illustration became the important medium for pictorial representation, ceramics were one of the major vehicles for representation in Islamic art. Even after book arts’ primacy was established, the decorative arts continued to demonstrate the high level of sophistication of Islamic artists. It was not until the Islamic medieval period (10th–12th centuries) that a highly abstract and fully developed style emerged, featuring that most original and ubiquitous pattern often known as "arabesque." That term was coined by someone in Napoleon’s army when he invaded Egypt and saw the beautiful tile work there.

With the Mongol invasion of western Asia in the 13th century and the establishment of a Mongol court in Iran in the 13th and 14th centuries, numerous Chinese motifs and patterns were adopted, though sometimes in markedly revised form. This lunette, intended for a building that the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston does not identify, clearly shows Chinese influence. The flat, stylized floral patterns formerly adapted from Byzantine art, here are more “fleshed out,” although the flattened, frontal view persists.

The 16th century is considered the golden era of Ottoman (ca. 1281-1924) art. Between the 16th and 17th centuries, ceramic arts flourished in the Ottoman Empire as never before. Under the Ottomans, the city of Iznik thrived as the main center of supply for ceramic tiles for decorating the many buildings commissioned by the rulers. Orders for architectural tile peaked during the seventeenth century.

Correlations to Davis programs: Explorations in Art Grade 1: 4.20; Explorations in Art Grade 2 1.2, 1.3; Explorations in Art Grade 4: 6.34; Explorations in Art Grade 5: 4.19; A Global Pursuit: 1.2; Discovering Art History: 4.7

Monday, April 4, 2011


Today’s post is about my epiphany of the week. In a previous post I introduced you to the early 20th century phenomenon in Japanese woodblock prints called sosaku hanga. That was the continuation of the Ukiyo-e style by artists who preferred to draw the subject, cut the woodblock, and print the image themselves. It is the Japanese version of the Arts and Crafts School ideal. On the other hand, the shin hanga artists continued the traditional Ukiyo-e method of creating prints: an artist’s sketch going to a woodblock carver then to a printer. The term shin hanga (new prints) was coined in 1915 by a Japanese publisher who wanted to distinguish contemporary Ukiyo-e from that of the past. Influenced by French Impressionismth and other western artistic conventions, the artists of this movement at the beginning of the 20th century produced some of what I absolutely have to drool over. I mean, I tried doing woodblock prints in junior high school…why couldn’t I get registration like these artists???? (sigh)

Kacho-e – birds and flowers (images) – was a traditional subject in Chinese and Japanese art, although Ukiyo-e artists, through the woodblock print medium, brought it to its greatest fruition. The artists Hokusai (1760-1849) and Hiroshige (1797-1858) were probably singularly responsible for making the subject so popular in the woodcut medium. But, by the late nineteenth century in Japan, Ukiyo-e prints were becoming eclipsed by western-introduced lithography as a medium of mass-produced imagery.

However, the genre persevered well into the 20th century because of artists like Ohara Koson. Although these artists preferred the traditional technique of handing over a drawing to a woodblock carver and then a printer, there is a VAST difference in sophistication in the late shin hanga prints. They possess a sensitivity of subject and execution that we see nowhere else, not to mention that the feeling for the subject matter itself that transcends the mere “homage to nature” we see in early Ukiyo-e prints.

Koson is considered one of the early 20th century masters of the shin hanga style of kacho-e. Born in Kanazawa as Ohara Matao, Koson’s traditional training included the Japanese custom of a pupil taking a mentor’s name (Susuki Koson/Kason). His main interest was in bird and flower prints, which he had executed in Tokyo by the Kokkeido publishing house, and then later the Daikokuya Company. The majority of Koson’s prints went to the US and Western Europe.

Ironically, later in life, Koson chose to emphasize painting as his primary medium. There was a revival in interest in kacho-e and, in particular, Koson prints after the 1960s. When Japanese scholars wanted to study his prints, most of them had to be imported from the US.

Correlations to Davis programs: Explorations in Art Grade 1: 1.6; Explorations in Art Grade 2; 3.13, 3.14; Explorations in Art Grade 3: 2.8; Explorations in Art Grade 4: 4.20; Explorations in Art Grade 5: 4.21, 4.24, 5.30; A Global Pursuit: 7.3; A Community Connection: 4.3, 8.2; The Visual Experience: 9.4